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Posts Tagged ‘east asia’

What President Trump means for Japan

Donald Trump is, failing an electoral college miracle, going to be the next president of the United States of America. Countless words will be written about what that means for America, but as a resident of Japan and a scholar of Japanese politics, I’d like to talk a little about what a Trump presidency means for Japan.

This is a question whose implications extend far beyond Japan itself. While the UK (and Australia) make much of their “Special Relationship” with the USA, Japan has in many ways been America’s most steadfast and important ally in the postwar era. The security treaty between the two countries is a cornerstone of the geopolitical order and stability of East Asia; Japan’s development as an economic powerhouse, aided and abetted by the United States, created a bulwark against communism in Asia; its embrace of democratic values made it a template of Asian democracy in a century when that was often a rare commodity.

While Japan has generally viewed Republican administrations in the US as being more amenable to this relationship, the reality is that the US-Japan alliance – both the formal security alliance and the more complex mesh of economic and political arrangements that bonds the nations – has been supported and developed by both Republican and Democrat administrations since its origins in the late 1950s.

Donald Trump’s stated positions on foreign policy are a significant threat to that relationship. Trump’s statements throughout his campaign paint Japan not as a partner but as a global rival of the United States. He suspects Japan of currency manipulation to the detriment of the US, and explicitly opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal of which the US and Japan are the key players. He has also repeatedly railed against what he views as the United States being short-changed in its security arrangements with Japan, and has gone far beyond the US establishment – which has long pressured Japan to take a more proactive role in conflicts and peacekeeping efforts – by suggesting that Japan should arm itself with nuclear weapons to ensure its own security.

That platform blindsided the Japanese political establishment; it’s a blast from the almost-forgotten past of the 1980s, when Japan’s rapid development and aggressive overseas acquisitions spurred fears that it would overtake US economic dominance. However, it’s hard to say how much of the platform will actually make its way into US policy. TPP is almost certainly dead in the water, but what line the US will take on Japan’s supposed currency manipulation and on broader trade issues is unknown. The security alliance, meanwhile, is based upon a ratified international treaty which will limit the actions of even a US President with the House, Senate and Supreme Court all lined up behind him – but its implementation, and the scope of the security cooperation between Japan and the US, could certainly be influenced if the Trump administration takes the insular, isolationist approach to foreign affairs that seems most likely.

No matter what policy or structural changes ultimately result, however, a degree of damage has already been done. Alliances are not just built upon legal treaties; they also rely on relationships of trust and assurance – upon both parties believing, long-term, in the commitments made by the other. Moreover, in the case of security alliances in particular, it’s not just the parties to the alliance who have to believe in it; outside actors, looking on at the alliance, also need to believe that its commitments are firm and will be upheld if tested. If an outside actor feels that the alliance is a paper tiger – that its commitments would not be upheld under testing conditions, for whatever reason – it creates a flashpoint for conflict and a weakness in the structure that upholds regional or even global stability.

Trump’s election, after more than a year of anti-Japanese campaign rhetoric, will weaken both internal and external perceptions of the Japan-US alliance regardless of what actual policy changes result under his administration. The view of the USA as being an increasingly unwilling participant in the affairs of East Asia will only be enhanced by Trump’s similar reticence regarding America’s role in NATO in Eastern Europe; a narrative of US isolationism will take hold among geopolitical rivals who chafe at the existing order, including Russia and China.

That is a tremendously dangerous position for Japan to find itself in. From economic rivalry to unresolved wartime history issues, the country’s relationships with several of its neighbours are fractious – most notably with China, a burgeoning superpower with thinly veiled imperial ambitions that stokes anti-Japanese sentiment as a release valve for discontent among its populace, and with North Korea, a nuclear-armed failed state. This not a hypothetically dangerous position; in absolutely practical terms, Japanese planes and ships tangle with Chinese incursions into the country’s airspace and territorial waters on a daily basis, while North Korean missile launches become increasingly sophisticated and deadly with each passing month. The importance of the US in maintaining Japanese security in these regards is paramount. The US commitment to the defence of Japan deters China from escalating its confrontations into what it would expect to be a brief, glory-seeking conflict and seizure of Japanese islands. In an even more practical, nuts-and-bolts sense, the US’ AEGIS destroyers are an essential part of Japan’s missile shield, with the country’s own fleet, although more advanced than any comparable navy in East Asia, presently incapable of dealing with the latest generations of North Korea’s missiles without US support.

If China or North Korea view America’s commitment to Japan’s security as negotiable or softening, either party may attempt to test the waters in a way that could lead to a much broader and bloodier armed conflict. In anticipation of that, and reflecting Japan’s own dawning unease regarding America’s commitment to the alliance, it’s almost certain that the US establishment will now get its long-held wish, albeit in a way it never wanted or expected – with Japan pushing harder than ever to normalise and expand its military prowess in order to make up for perceived US weakness (or non-commitment) in the Asia-Pacific region.

Quite a few commentators on Japanese politics and policy would argue that this is a process which has already started, but as I’ve observed before on this blog, Japan’s military budget increases have actually been extremely limited in recent years, with the country continuing to treat the US alliance as the beating heart of its security arrangements. The possibility of a revision to the pacifist Article 9 of the postwar constitution, though desired by Prime Minister Abe and his inner circle, had looked very remote indeed – until Trump’s election. Now, it is guaranteed that America’s relationship with Japan and the depth of its commitment to Japan’s security would be a fiercely debated topic for the coming four years. Many moderates in Japan will likely conclude that while Japanese pacifism was wonderful while the country remained safe behind America’s shield, if that shield can no longer be fully relied upon (and if China and North Korea suspect that the shield is less impervious than it used to be) then Japan has an urgent, pragmatic need to arm itself, and to remove the legal restraints that might prevent its military from effectively defending the country.

It’s not just Japan’s security position and the likelihood of normalising its military role that will be heavily impacted by the Trump presidency. The Japanese government, assuming a Clinton victory, had sought to pressure the US on TPP by ratifying the deal this month, well ahead of the inauguration of any new president. With Trump taking the office, TPP is likely off the table, and with it goes one of the core pillars of Abenomics. How Japan will react is unknown, but it seems likely that the country will feel compelled to seek out alternative trade arrangements – a Plan B to shore up its troubled economic reform programme. A version of TPP negotiated between Japan and the other non-US signatories is one possibility. Closer ties with Russia are another, although Russia’s economy is something of a disaster and Japan’s bureaucrats may be worried about hitching their cart to that particular horse. A long-discussed Japan-EU deal might even be expanded, though for a full-spectrum deal, the EU wants Japan to look at things including abolishing its (grossly abusive and cruel) death penalty system, which would be a sticking point. None of these, though, would match the sheer volume of trade that would have been affected by the TPP’s liberalisation of the cross-Pacific trade between Japan and the US. Regardless of your view on TPP itself (personally, I think it’s a mess, with far too many self-interested parties involved in opaque negotiations that have ultimately yielded an over-complicated, ill-considered, under-researched and worryingly anti-democratic treaty – but it’s still probably better than the existing situation), this is a huge stumbling block for the plans for economic reform and recovery in Japan.

This is where we stand now, only hours after Trump was elected. We don’t know who his key appointments are, what his policies will be, or any other concrete detail – but when the USA sneezes, Japan catches a cold. Trump being President-Elect already has clear, powerful impacts on Japanese domestic and foreign policy. The country’s economic programme is facing a deep crisis. Meanwhile, the likelihood of “remilitarisation” (really, just a normalisation of Japan’s military to the same status as that of any other developed nation, but likely to stoke tensions in East Asia nonetheless) and constitutional reform just took a powerful shot in the arm. With Trump preparing to enter the Oval Office in January, Japan is for the first time since the 1950s being forced to consider that its future might not include a close US relationship – and that is, of necessity, going to yield a very different Japan.

Control, Freedom and the End of China’s Boom

Yesterday’s New York Times featured a well-written and quite balanced article looking back over eight years of a China-based correspondant’s experience of the country – “Notes on the China I’m Leaving Behind” (hat tip to Peng Jingchao for the link). Ignoring the uncomfortably convenient anecdote in the last paragraph, the author’s description of the evolution of Chinese society in the 21st century is one that strikes a lot of interesting notes.

I work with two fantastic researchers who are investigating the Chinese media and the systems through which control is exerted over media narratives at a state and regional level in the country. In essence, they are trying to lay bare the cogwheels and levers that the New York Times piece hints at – the mechanisms that allow the shaping of narratives and belief systems, even while encouraging the outward appearance of more freedom, more marketisation and more democracy. It’s tricky research; most of these systems are not formal or legislative, but conducted through mutual understandings, through winks and nods and carefully coded speech, and can only be uncovered by looking at the fine detail of the outcome in the form of actual reporting of events across the country’s various media outlets.

What I’ve gleaned from watching their work progress, and from talking to other researchers who engage with Chinese social media and the control of information on China’s separate, mirror-world version of the Internet, is a sense of just what an extraordinary and darkly impressive enterprise the Chinese government is presently engaged with. It is committed to market capitalism, to economic growth (at almost any cost) and to the advancement of living standards and growth of the middle class; it is also committed to keeping the Chinese Communist Party firmly in control of the nation, and as such, its objective is to decouple democracy from capitalism, severing economic freedom from political freedom. In a philosophical sense, what China is doing right now is an utter repudiation of the beliefs that underpinned the West during the Cold War; by advancing capitalism without democracy, markets without freedom, China would prove that these things were never inextricably linked, that one can happily thrive without the other.

That’s not exactly news, of course. Countries like Singapore – which, I suspect, China’s leaders have viewed as a hugely instructive model – have effectively managed to combine fantastic economic growth and high standards of living with deeply undemocratic regimes for many years. They provide just enough of the trappings of democracy to keep international relationships nice and smooth (democratic countries often make uncomfortable noises when dealing with undemocratic states) and to allow their comfortable middle classes, enjoying the benefits of economic growth, to dismiss the complaints or unrest of less-advantaged groups as mere “troublemaking”. China is this socio-political experiment writ large upon the canvas of the world’s largest state; an attempt to generalise the model successfully implemented by the ruling elites of Singapore and elsewhere upon a population of well over a billion people. Its tools in this enterprise range from the blunt force of arrested and imprisoned activists to altogether more subtle and powerful techniques of information control – through education, through media and, increasingly, through the very Internet tools that activists so often lionise as harbingers of democracy.

Buried in the New York Times article is, I think, the most important truth about this whole process – that the Chinese authorities are afraid, primarily, of one thing, namely the Chinese people. In discourses about China, at least those taking place outside China (and especially here in Japan, a country which by and large doesn’t know quite what to think of the huge, vastly important neighbour with whom it shares such a complex and contested history), there’s a tendency to emphasise China’s external relationships. A great deal of focus is placed upon territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, on the curious and difficult relationship with Taiwan and on the complex, inter-dependent and occasionally belligerent jostling for power with its fellow superpower, the USA. When people talk about internal relationships in China, they talk of Tibet or the Uighur people, about the contested status of Hong Kong, or about the treatment of prominent activists like Ai Weiwei. I’m not a China specialist by trade (though as mentioned, I work with several), but I can’t help but feel that these foci miss the point; they’re chosen through the lens of what people outside China care about, and miss the reality of what people within the country, and people within the government and the CCP, care about.

I’d contend that the most important relationship within China, the one that really matters, is none of those listed above – it’s the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and the huge, burgeoning Chinese middle class. These are the people who have benefitted from China’s economic growth, who enjoy a quality of life undreamed of by their parents or grandparents and who are deeply proud of China’s rise in the world (but who also still tend to see China as being bullied, disrespected or put down by powerful rivals like the USA and Japan). They are also a generation far more educated than their parents’ generation, far more exposed to global influences – and thus far less likely to accept the “elites know best”, top-down rule of the CCP. If the CCP ever loses power, it will not be because of Tibetans, Uighurs, human rights activists or interventions from its neighbours; it be because the Chinese middle class demands democracy en masse, either violently or otherwise.

Right now, that isn’t happening. The majority of the China experts I speak to see no deep wellspring of democratic sentiment, no silent majority wishing for democratic freedom. They see a middle class that’s far more interested in its freedom to consume than in its freedom to vote; a population lifted in the space of a single generation from rural poverty to urban comfort. They have flat-screen TVs, smartphones, cars; they take holidays abroad, eat well, often consuming exotic food their parents would never have tasted, buy consumer goods and electronics, and each year sees an incremental increase in quality of living which, in almost any country you care to mention, easily quenches any thirst for democratic freedom. When life is so materially better today than it was ten years ago, why risk it all by speaking out for something so abstract, so removed from your own daily existence, as democracy?

Why, then, are China’s elites afraid? Because sustaining power through economic growth can’t be done indefinitely. Economies slow down or go into recession, and the meteoric growth of a country transitioning from a rural, agricultural economy to an urban, high-tech economy is largely an exercise in picking low-hanging fruit. Giving apartments, cars and TVs to a billion people who didn’t have them before is pretty heady stuff, economically, but as the rest of the developed world has been discovering for the past decade or more, eking out growth becomes a hell of a lot harder once all that low-hanging fruit is picked. China, too, is slowing down; it has announced much lower growth numbers over the past year than in previous years, and many good economists even question those numbers, suspecting that the figures are being artifically inflated to keep things looking good. If growth stalls or, worse, starts to go backwards, it will create two major sources of unrest within China – firstly, those still in poverty who have been anticipating that economic growth will reach them eventually, but now fear that they have ended up on the wrong side of a permanent socio-economic cleavage within the country; and secondly, the new middle classes, who have become accustomed to rapid improvements in their quality of living and now find this movement stalled. Oddly, history shows that it could be the second group who are most dangerous to China’s authorities; a concept called “revolution of rising expectations” emerged in the 1950s (though Alexis de Tocqueville had explored similar ideas as far back as the mid-1800s) which showed empirically that it’s not the impoverished and hopeless who rebel against governments, it’s the segments of society that have seen rising standards of living and abruptly find their raised expectations unfulfilled.

It is inevitable that this will happen in China – which is why the authorities are so determined to explore every other avenue of control available to them, before the economic honeymoon period comes to an end. This is the most powerful and important motivator of the behaviour of the Chinese state right now, and I don’t think it’s extreme to say that almost every single action taken by the Chinese state can be read and understood in the context of this desire to control its own middle class. Its international disputes – over mere rocks and reefs in the South and East China Seas – are often explored in economic or military terms, but are arguably far more important in internal propaganda terms, by setting up minor conflicts with Japan, America and their allies which can be easily exploited for nationalist propaganda purposes. The suppression of activists and the international condemnation it attracts is played as the cultural imperialism of the West directed against China and its system of values. Trade agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are presented (not entirely unfairly) as evidence of China’s rivals trying to contain its economic growth; and of course, historic disputes with Japan, over everything from Nanjing to Yasukuni and back again, are used to stoke nationalist sentiments and give the Chinese people a sense of facing a common enemy (a strategy which Japan’s own hapless nationalists fall over themselves to enable, over and over again, like particularly unintelligent dogs in a Pavlovian experiment).

Not everything that the Chinese authorities are doing to secure their position in the post-boom years is bad, of course. The country’s economic growth has vastly improved the standards of living of hundreds of millions of people. The nation’s lack of democracy shouldn’t disguise its extraordinary achievements; the sheer number of people who have jumped in single generation from village peasant lives barely changed since medieval times to being urban, college-educated professionals is staggering and hugely impressive. Nothing has moved the needle on the world’s problems with poverty in the past decade as much as China’s advancement. Under Xi Jinping, the country has also started to tackle the political corruption that was endemic at local levels, an effort largely designed to stamp out a likely source of future unrest in the Chinese people.

It’s anyone’s guess whether any of this – the information control, the stoking of nationalist fires, the careful shrouding of the harsh machinery of totalitarianism in the soft language of democracy and freedom, or even the laudable crackdown on corruption – will count for anything when China’s economic growth finally stalls badly enough for its middle classes to feel the pinch. But this is the context in which we need to read what’s happening in China today. The authorities know that the stability and security of their position has enjoyed a blessed existence under the protection of the country’s economic growth, but they see the end of that protection in sight. Extending economic growth is a priority, of course, but building the structures that will protect their position in a post-growth world is the motivation that drives China’s authorities today – and this is the only analytical lens that makes sense of the country’s actions towards its neighbours, its trading partners and its own people.